Inverted Gear Blog

Please Don’t Make Me Pull Rank

After I had been teaching jiu-jitsu for a while, a twenty-something man started coming to my classes. He had never trained before, but he had somehow decided he knew a lot already—shades of the Dunning-Kruger effect plus, I’m guessing, YouTube. From the get-go, he had a habit of telling his training partners how to do techniques (usually incorrectly) and asking questions that seemed less about clarification and more about proving what he knew and what I did not. I tried to be patient with him, letting him know I was happy to work with him but asking him to stop being disruptive in class. He would either laugh or stare at me, and then during the next class he would shout out again.

One time he must have hit my last nerve, because I changed the way I responded. He called me over to say that his partner was not doing the technique sequence correctly, and could I help. When I started walking the partner through the sequence, he interrupted repeatedly and “corrected” me (e.g., “Don’t you mean X?” I didn’t. “Why wouldn’t he do Y there?” Because he would lose position). I finally said, “All right. Your turn.” I made him run through the technique sequence, and every time he messed up, which was often, I said, “That’s wrong. That’s wrong.” He started to get flustered, and I made him complete the sequence. Then I said, “You need to think more about your own training and less about everyone else’s. Got it?” He did not respond, but I could see from his face that my message had started to sink in.

When it was time for open training, I pointed at him and said, “Let’s go.” Then I tapped him with the same mounted Americana 5 or 6 times in a row. This required that I get to the mount each time from a neutral face-off, which I had no problem doing.

After I tapped him repeatedly, there was a little time left, and I decided to let him sweep me. He said, “Oh, you gave me that.” Progress? I chose to think so.

I responded with “Yup.” Usually I would tell a student that he got the sweep because he had gotten all the details right, but this guy got no quarter.

After that, he continued to come to my class, but he was noticeably quieter and less brash. I did my best to let him know he was still welcome, and to indicate that the change in his behavior was much appreciated.

I did not like doing that to him. I do not even like describing how easy it was for me to do it. However, I had to weigh his need to feel like he knew more than he did with my need to provide an effective learning experience for the entire class, because the two needs were mutually exclusive, my need took precedence, and my subtler attempts to send the message had not registered. If I had it to do over, I would probably come out and tell him the same point I am making here: I do not like to pull rank, but I will if I must.

To me, pulling rank refers to those times when I must remind one or more other people that there is a pecking order, and that the person or people I am reminding are lower on it than I am. Usually the behavior that prompts me to pull rank involves some disruption of class or some transgression against another student, though there are many other reasons.

I am not alone. I know many people—friends, colleagues, and mentors—who have worked hard to earn their rank in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and continue to work hard to live up to it. Like me, these people see their rank as an important part of who they are. But also like me, based on my observations of them, at least, most of the black belts I know and respect do not enjoy lording that over others.

I do not like pulling rank because it forces me to highlight power and authority differentials, when I much prefer that students and instructors alike recognize and respect our different roles because we respect each other as people. When I am teaching, it is my job to lead class, and it is the students’ job to learn and, I hope, enjoy. Sometimes I am the student, too, and when that is the case, I act appropriately. Ideally, all of us recognize our roles and commit to fulfilling them. In situations where I feel I must pull rank, it is because some among us have decided they need not adhere to the group’s shared agreement of what constitutes appropriate behavior in the training context. It is as if all of us are all reduced to the color of our belts, and that way lies danger.

Sure, it can be difficult to suss out what constitutes appropriate behavior in a jiu-jitsu context, and I daresay that jiu-jitsu academies as a group do not have the best track record for establishing expectations up front. Academies are getting better at this, though, and if you do not know, there are ways to figure it out: observation, asking your drilling partner, and asking the instructor, for instance. When we are new to jiu-jitsu or a specific school, we can commit to learning how to enhance the learning environment instead of acting in a way that forces the instructor to protect it—and to rely on something other than mutual respect for keeping order.

Instructors and coaches, what are your thoughts on pulling rank? Students and teammates, what questions do you have about how to make sure you are not the person your instructor has to pull rank on? Post your ideas to comments.

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A Life Well Wasted

 

I borrowed the title for this blog post from a video game podcast that faded into inactivity far too soon. Growing up in the 90s and early 2000s, I often encountered a pervasive cultural idea of video games being a waste of time, and that all of his kids playing Nintendo and Sega Genesis would eventually have to put aside childish things and grow up.

Oddly enough, I’ve encountered similar reactions to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. When my injuries started to pile up, my family assumed that I would be stepping away from the sport for good. I had relationships—romantic and otherwise—where the person on the other end also assumed that there would be an ending point for my weird pajama hobby just over the horizon somewhere. I’d come to my senses and do normal things instead.

From anyone outside of the sport, BJJ looks like a profound waste of time. It spreads like the Nightmare King from Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland across our schedules, demanding that we visit the gym more and more frequently. It wears down our bodies. It changes how we think and how we behave. And it even changes how we look in many cases—a black eye here, some cauliflower ear there.

As far as being an activity that is productive for society as a whole, yeah, sure, jiu-jitsu doesn’t come close to volunteering at a soup kitchen or grinding away at a business idea or pitching your script idea (Little Nemo: Slumberland Strikes Back) to movie producers, but that’s not really the point. For those of us who aren’t making jiu-jitsu a career—and that is by and large the vast majority of jiu-jiteiros—the sport is supposed to be a beautiful and magical waste of time.

As a hobby, jiu-jitsu has a number of peripheral benefits like getting you active and connecting you to a community, but above all of those things is the core tenant of any hobby: It’s supposed to be fun. Most hobbies, whether you are playing Magic: The Gathering or watching professional sports, are fun first and foremost to their fans. We can wax poetically about the positive things that can come with a specific hobby, but a lot of times that just feels like apologetics to me, as if something simply being fun isn’t justification enough for our spending time on it.

Doing something because you enjoy it is a worthwhile reward worth pursuing and protecting.

We have hobbies because we like hanging out with the other people who enjoy those hobbies. We like the memories we create, and we enjoy the way we interact with our hobbies—physically, mentally, and even emotionally. We could make an argument about how jiu-jitsu is better than other hobbies, but that’s not necessary. All that we should have to say is that we enjoy it, and that it doesn’t hurt anybody (beyond the usual scope of sport).

Fun for the sake of fun is sadly a part of our lives that can be lost in adulthood. For me, being on the mat is like being a kid again. I never got those superpowers that I wished for, but I can feel pretty close to a Tekken character when I chain together my favorite moves and sweeping the guy twice my size might as well qualify me for Jedi status.

If we put away all of our childish things, I think we risk losing a piece of ourselves. That pure in the moment enjoyment and focus is a special thing that should be treasured. Who cares if it doesn’t help the stock market or give you another line item on your LinkedIn profile?

I don’t. So let’s just enjoy jiu-jitsu for what it is: Fun.

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Impostor Syndrome: Why and How to Neutralize It

Recently I was invited to create a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu instructional. This was actually the second time I got the invitation. The first was probably about two years ago, and my response to that first invitation was, “What do I possibly have to share that hasn’t already been shared countless times?” I reasoned that everything I had learned had been taught to me by teachers who knew the movements better than I did and had more experience teaching. Why not ask them?

When it comes to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, I have a chronic case of Impostor Syndrome. (Who am I fooling? I have Impostor Syndrome in most areas of my life.) I assume everybody at my level knows much more than I do and that it is just a matter of time before everyone finds out that I have been faking it all along. This has been true since I was a new practitioner just trying to get moves down, and as I take on more of a leadership role in my corner of the jiu-jitsu world, the Syndrome has spread to my beliefs about my teaching and coaching ability as well.

This is a problem for many reasons. First, it makes me miserable. Second, it makes it difficult for me to accurately gauge where I need to improve—if I believe I stink at everything, which is not true, then I cannot target my true weaknesses. Third, it sets a bad example for people who might look to me for leadership, and I have learned that when you wear a black belt, you are in a leadership position whether you want to be or not. Fourth, if I buy into the beliefs that Impostor Syndrome instills in me, I will not have the confidence to contribute as much to the jiu-jitsu world as I am capable of.

In recent years, therefore, I have worked hard on living up to the responsibilities I believe the black belt confers, which means combating Impostor Syndrome, particularly when it comes to leadership. One thing in particular has helped me with this. It is something everyone tells you all the time, from nursery school on, but it was in the context of teaching jiu-jitsu that I finally started to internalize the message: No one has the same constellation of experiences, personality, and influences that I do, and this results in a unique person known as me. In addition to being the subject of many Sesame Street-type songs, this has also been useful information as I work toward being the kind of practitioner and leader I want to be and that I believe my students and colleagues deserve. Here are a few ways it has helped me:

  • My body structure and comfort level with various movements have contributed to the development of my jiu-jitsu “signature,” which is evident to people who train with me. For instance, I use a lot of hooks and staples, and I have become effective at dropping my weight.

  • My world view inspires me to look constantly for the humor in any situation, and I incorporate that perspective into my drilling, teaching, and coaching, where appropriate, of course.

  • The types of ideas, perspectives, and people I have been exposed to influence the types of analogies and examples I use to enhance my teaching, and the ways I interact with teammates.

  • One of my explicit goals is to make people in classes I teach believe they can learn and that they belong, and to be a supportive and encouraging training partner. I believe positive energy has a positive effect, and I hope that belief comes through in how people feel when they learn and train with me.

The point of all of this is: I bring a unique perspective to jiu-jitsu simply by being who I am, and more and more, I am coming to believe that it is a perspective that makes a positive contribution. My Impostor Syndrome is a chronic condition, but through a combination of methods, I am managing it.

Want to combat your own Impostor Syndrome? Here are some suggestions for working on it:

  • Observe what your training partners tell you. As you develop a jiu-jitsu personality, your training partners will give you feedback, particularly when you are shutting down their games, and you will start to see patterns in that feedback. That is how I learned I feel heavy and that my hooks are annoying: enough people said so that I started to notice when it happened, which made it easier for me to cultivate it.

  • Notice that different jiu-jitsu leaders lead differently, and that that is okay. Think of some jiu-jitsu leaders you respect and resonate with. The next time you see them in leadership roles (e.g., teaching, coaching), notice specifics about what they do and say, what resonates with you about their leadership and what does not, and, most importantly, how their approaches differ.

  • Notice that different practitioners have different energy, and that that is okay. Conduct the same type of observation with your favorite training partners. What do you like about training with them? What do they have in common, and where do they differ? What do you have in common with them, and what is different about you?

I am still nervous about it, but the second time I got invited to do an instructional, earlier this year, I said yes. I remembered that the jiu-jitsu practitioner I have become is the culmination of a huge amount of work, experience, and learning, and that it will be valuable to someone. Who knows: Maybe the way I explain a technique will be exactly what a practitioner needs to finally internalize it. And if I did not learn to manage my Impostor Syndrome, then I would not have been able to help that person.

Do you have Impostor Syndrome? (I hope you do not, but I also hope I am not the only one.) How do you handle it? Post your strategies to comments.

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Answers to 5 Common White Belt Questions

Starting Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu can be a bewildering and socially awkward experience. You are dropped into a new culture with all its own rules and traditions. To ease some of that tension, I have written answers to a few of the most common questions that beginners ask.

Does it matter what color gi I buy?

Check your school’s rules, but a white gi is always a safe bet. Blue is normally fine too. Black is probably OK but some new students worry it will draw too much attention.

The reasons to check with your school first are that some require white gis or require you to buy a school gi. More liberal BJJ associations like the BJJ Globetrotters allow everyone to wear whatever colors and patches they like.

Do I have to wear a rashguard under my gi?

Again, check if your school has rules about this, but usually it’s not required, though wearing one is much more common these days and I recommend it.

Back when I started BJJ, men went bare chested and women wore sports bras and t-shirts under their jackets. Somewhere along the line it became popular to wear rashguards instead. Having had my face pressed in many a hairy man’s chest, this is a trend I fully support.

How do I remember everything I’m being shown?

I have yet to find a better way to remember techniques than writing a training journal. Keeping a detailed journal can be difficult at first because a single class can be overwhelming, but your recall will get better with practice.

How do I deal with feeling so sore after training?

Nothing will prevent you from feeling some soreness, but these can help:

  1. Good sleep.
  2. Drinking plenty of water.
  3. Eating healthy.
  4. Taking a day or two off to rest.
  5. Stretching and foam rolling.
  6. Massage.

In the long run, your body will adapt in many ways that lessen the soreness. You should start a habit of working on your mobility and strength now to guard against the more serious injuries that BJJ athletes are prone to.

How soon before training should I eat?

You know your body and its quirks better than me, but I recommend you eat something healthy about an hour before class. Give yourself enough time to not feel it sitting in your stomach when you start bouncing and rolling around.

Good choices for snacks are oatmeal, granola, peanut butter, whole grain bread, fruit, and nuts. If you are on some kind of diet or bodybuilding plan where those foods are not recommended, then this question and answer was not for you.

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If you still have more questions you’re afraid to ask, put them in the comments below and I’ll work them into the next installment. Thanks for reading!

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Giant Blue Belts and Giant Shipping Problems

After realizing that I had neglected my mount escapes, I’ve dedicated the last several weeks revisiting and refining how I deal with this position. My escapes weren’t terrible, but my preference for guard meant that I was rarely forced to fight out of mount.

As I forced myself to let people mount me, I had flashbacks to being a white belt stuck under the giant blue belts I used to train with. The horror. Sweat dripping on me. My chest crunching. The steady inch toward a higher and tighter mount. Even though it’s been years since I’ve felt that desperate under mount, part of my desire to work on the position is driven by those memories: I know how bad the position can get, so I need to take it seriously to keep a position from going from bad to worse.

So every training session, I ask a few big guys to hop into mount, give me pressure, and get mean.

While I worked on this mount project, I found myself underneath mount somewhere else. Our fulfillment company moved locations, and while I won’t bore you with all the details, it was a perfect storm of unfortunate events that left us way behind. Some orders took over two weeks to ship, some of our inventory was lost only to be found in a different box weeks later, and our new shipments were still waiting to be updated while we finished organizing.

As our inbox started to fill with “Did my gi ship?” requests, we kept our elbows tight and started to work our way out from underneath this terrible situation. We updated everyone on what was going on. We went to the warehouse and rolled up our sleeves and helped moving boxes and shipping orders, something we haven’t done since the warehouse was located in my parent’s basement. I have continued to spend two days a week at the warehouse.

Through this whole ordeal, I was able to stay remarkably calm, and we are slowly working our way out. While we are not completely out yet and it still sucks to be under mount, I would say we are at least getting back to half guard, and working our way back to closed guard soon. I will continue making my three-hour drive to the warehouse on Monday mornings to help ship and organize our inventory, and we hope to be back to shipping our orders within 48 hours soon.

In the meantime thank you for all your patience. We are not happy about how these events played out, but when you’re stuck under mount, your best bet is to admit that you’re in a bad position and be proactive about tunneling your way out. You might want to ignore it and just hope that it gets better, but that’s not how any of this works.

Face the problem head on and get to working that upa.

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